Writing your own story

I saw his shirt from across the crowded cafeteria:

Writing my OWN story.

I hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know him, but I had to go over and say: “That’s the most awesome shirt! Do you like to write?”

He smiled and nodded, eyes bright and cheerful: “Yes!”

We had a short conversation about reading and writing. He was new to our school. After this initial encounter he was quick to come ask questions if he wasn’t sure about how we do things here, always greeting me with an earnest face and slightly self-conscious smile.

He wasn’t with us long. On his last days, he asked if he could stay after lunch and clean all of the tables as his grade level headed to recess. He wiped every table meticulously, then straightened all of the cardboard trays in the serving line for the classes to follow.

I understood.

It was something he could control. A positive and productive outlet.

I never got to write with him.

I thought about students over the years and what I learned about their lives from their writing. A girl whose family slept in their car on the journey north to visit relatives for the holidays; how she woke in the morning, shivering, to find frost coating the windows. A teenager whose vivid third-person narrative about a child born in another country, who survives abuse to find a new life and family in America . . . it switches to first person at the end as he rejoices and reveals he was that child. A first-grader who wanted to write about her dog, how the police shot and killed it. Unnerved, I told her teacher, in hopes that this was just a disturbing fabrication. It wasn’t. The child saw it happen.

For all the story-loving writer that I am, I know writing is not a magic cure for the pain and scars of life. It is, however, a real coping mechanism, a positive and productive outlet, a way of seeing and dealing with and finding hope to overcome. Even in the youngest of us, many of whom already know that life doesn’t follow a neat formula, that it seldom follows a clear and sensible series of steps. I often think about what passes for “writing” in schools; it can’t always be a neat response to a text or a prompt. If we are truly to equip children with tools for life, it begins with a real response to their lives in this world. We owe them, for as long as we have them, a place to feel safe, to be loved, a way of having some control in the face of change, to find their own power despite their powerlessness.To write their own lives, even as life is unfolding.

To have hope on the journey as it takes so many twists and turns.

Time is of the essence; we don’t know for how long or short a time they’ll be in our sphere of influence. Good-byes can come without warning.

And so I quickly gathered the best tools I had at my disposal: pencils, notebooks, a couple of favorite books from my shelf. It was my way of saying Godspeed, child. Write your OWN story. Believe. Attend to your heart. Here’s a piece of mine to carry with you.

Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.

You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.

—excerpts, Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Holy

It is dark, I cannot see.

—Wait a bit, there will be

light.

I  don’t see You, but I’ll trust.

—I made your eyes, they will adjust;

I gave you sight.

So much I see, that should not be.

Be still and leave this all to Me;

it will be right.

 I fear most to see inside of me.

Fear not. Even there I’ll be

to drive away your night.

No darkness is too great for Me.

This I know. It sets me free.

Toward Your light my soul

takes flight.

The eagle

Eagle

Bald Eagle. sally9258CC-BY

After a recent outpatient procedure, as I secretly celebrated waking up from anesthesia and not dying, my  husband drove me home down the back country roads. Through the passenger window I idly watched winter-brown grass, trees, and old gray outbuildings zipping by, noted a small clearing with a tiny pond nestled in wood-strewn ground, an eagle sitting by the wayside—

wait

We said it simultaneously, my husband and I: “THAT’S AN EAGLE!”

Just a quick impression, sitting majestically, facing us, huge, white head gleaming atop the dark body, not ten feet away . . . .

We were past it as soon as the sight registered on our brains.

“Go back! Go back!” I pleaded, grabbing my phone, opening the camera.

sssskkkkrrrrttt! of a turn-around at a dirt driveway, and we were back in a flash.

It watched us, unmoving, as we neared, but when we slowed, the eagle grew suspicious. It took off. Within a millisecond, into the bare, gnarled oaks.

“No! Wait! Wait!” I cried, snapping as fast as I could.

We rolled a little farther, but the only good shot I got was of its back, soaring away.

Gone. I missed the moment. Failed to capture my encounter with the wondrous. I have never been that close to an eagle in the wild. I’ve hardly seen any free ones at all, in fact. I’ve heard them calling in their high, haunting, piercing voices, have seen one perched on top of a streetlamp, but never anything like this.

I grieved my loss: It would have made such a great blog post, too.

I got home, got into bed.

Couldn’t rest.

The image of the eagle wouldn’t leave my thoughts. It stayed, motionless, watching me. Cocked its head, affixed me with its eye, its penetrating gaze.

—Why wouldn’t you stay so still just a little while ago?

It ruffled its feathers. Kept right on staring at me.

So I looked it up.

There are few things I love better than symbolism, and few are better-known than the eagle: The national bird, on the Great Seal of the United States. Revered icon of ancient times, civilizations, people. Mascot to numerous sports teams—even that of the school where I work.

But this is what got me about the eagle:

It is a symbol of healing.

It is a symbol of transition, some element of life or creative endeavor, about to take flight.

—Dare I see it as a sign that all shall be well, that some new venture, personal or professional, lies just ahead?

It was just an eagle sitting by the wayside, as eagles surely do, somewhere, every day.

Only this time I happened to see it. In the blinking of an eye.

It blinked.

I blinked back at it.

So, I told it, you wouldn’t stay put for a real picture, but now you linger as a mental one. If you’re going to hang around portending something, then let it be my creativity and insight taking flight. Let it be about thing I love to do most—let my writing be courageous and free, with clarity of vision. Let it fly, let it fly, on and on, higher and higher.

Only then did the image fade; only then did I rest.

I fell asleep.

And woke in the morning, renewed, resolute.

No more missed moments. There aren’t moments to lose.

—I’m ready for whatever lies ahead. Lead on, eagle.  

My best shot

Rabbit reverie

I saw the first one of the season just about a week ago, while driving along a back road on the blackest of nights. Through an infernal, eternal, cold Carolina rain, my headlight beams caught a flash of brown, a glimpse of white cottontail zigzagging like lightning off to the right.

—Rabbit.

—Spring is near.

The cheery thought sent me into a rabbit reverie.

My husband used to tell our boys when they were small that fog was really the rabbits making soup.  I immediately envisioned hundreds of tiny cast-iron pots over miniature campfires out in the woods, with rabbits meticulously stirring and stirring the steaming contents—Where’d you get this fanciful idea? I asked. My husband smiled: It’s what my father used to tell me. To this day, our sons, grown men,  look outside on a foggy day and nod sagely: “Rabbits making soup again.”

Baby rabbits hung out on our porch during the spring I was expecting the second of the two boys. The older one, seven turning eight, sat at the windows of his baby brother’s nursery-in-progress to watch them up close: Look, Mom, look! There they are! Easter bunnies!

I decorated the nursery with a Peter Rabbit theme.

The first good animal drawing that I ever did, that my first-grade classmates sincerely complimented, was of a rabbit. I didn’t tell them I’d traced it, as that seemed a totally insignificant point at the time.

I recalled my father mentioning the local radio station of his 1940s childhood, WRRF. He said it stood for We Run Rabbits Fast.

Life runs faster than rabbits, doesn’t it, Daddy. Too, too fast.

With that, all my rabbit thoughts left me as rapidly as they came.

Until I promptly stumbled upon this garden photo with two baby bunnies nestled in a head of—cabbage?

So that’s what this is about. I am clearly dealing with a motif.

Okay, Bunnies, I acknowledge you, your contribution to my life, your secret culinary arts, your near-omnipresence in children’s literature, your real and mystical connections to springtime, even your voracity.

I’m grateful for you.

I’m also thankful that I don’t have a garden for you to destroy, just saying.

And I am really, really sorry that I carried around that rabbit’s foot (dyed aqua) when I was nine. It wasn’t lucky anyway; that’s the year I broke my arm . . .

Seems I’ve long since redeemed myself, little friends.

Sun day

Here in the heart of North Carolina, epic snow and bitter temperatures haven’t been an issue.

We’ve had a different plague.

For nine dark days in a row, it’s rained.

Rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain

Small rivers flowing over roads and through parking lots. Yards turned to absolute bogs. Maybe we can raise a bumper crop of Venus flytraps.

The farmers say it’s good for the cows, that continuously pulling their feet up high from so much mud as they walk builds their muscles (is this true? The rain is beefing up the beef?).

Not so for humans. The utter gloom left us in a zombie-like stupor.

Gray day after gray day after gray day . . . .what did the sun even look like? Feel like?

Wait—I remember reading something like this. I first encountered it long, long ago. A story of bad enchantment. . .

“When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story” . . . Slowly and gravely, the Witch repeated, “There is no sun.” And they all said nothing. She repeated in a softer, deeper voice: “There is no sun.” After a pause, and after a struggle in their minds, all four of them said together: “You are right. There is no sun.” It was such a relief to give in and say it.

—C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

How easy to forget there ever was a sun, succumbing to the mind-numbing sound of rain, rain rain, just as Prince Rilian, Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum fell under the spell cast by the strum, strum, strum of the Witch on her stringed instrument.

Until yesterday, that is, when I heard a sound other than falling water.

Just outside my bedroom window, birds were singing. Merrily.

Despite the pouring rain, on a morning with no sun, they sang with pure zest.

How it lifted my spirits. Surely the sun could not be far from returning. Surely the birds knew it, were proclaiming it ahead of time: This this this too will pass pass pass. This this too will pass pass pass, wait and see, wait and see . . .

Then, today, bit by bit, the grayness lifted. Yellow shafts of light suddenly spilled through the blinds; I ran right outside to revel in the brightness. Now, as the afternoon wanes, shimmering golden fingers are playing across my keyboard, my hands, the table, the walls. I think of a happy child, dancing, full of joie de vivre, joy of living.

Today just so happens to be Sunday.

And now I have a bit of song for you, little harbinger birds:

Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right.

—George Harrison

The gesture

Pure love

Pure love. SurFerGiRL30CC-BY

Sunday morning at church. I took a seat by the aisle where sunlight poured through the stained glass window, where pale patches of pink, green, blue, and gold glimmered down the white wall.

In front of me sat a young man, a young woman, and a little girl, three years old.

The young man stretched his arm along the back of the pew, nearly but not quite embracing the young woman and child, just an easy drape of affection, of togetherness.

I could just see the top of the child’s head, two pinned-up pigtails coming loose, where his hand rested.

Then a chubby little hand crept up to pat his arm, once, twice, with all the grace of a ballerina. Two slow, deliberate, barely-discernible pats, before the dimpled hand disappeared again.

I watched, pierced by this silent message.

Maybe it was I love you. Or Thank you for being with me. Or quiet reassurance—I am fine, you are fine, we are fine together. Maybe even I’m here, you’re here, all is well with the world.

Such pureness of heart in that simple gesture. Such trust and confidence, such peace. How naturally it comes to a child, reaching out to someone else in benevolence, faith, and belonging.

And I mourned the incremental loss of it as we grow older, that it should fade like the colored patches of stained-glass light against the wall, that clarity of purpose should be obscured even as we accrue the words and language to better communicate our thoughts and feelings, that we should have to think twice about reaching out, or being the first to do so.

Two gentle pats, in them contained the original order and design of things, that together is the best place to be, that we are here for one another.

And so the children remind us.

A different Nativity story

They loved decorating for Christmas, my in-laws.

My mother-in-law had bows and garland running all through the house. Candles in each windowsill and against the panes, wreaths hanging from long ribbon.

My father-in-law took care of the outside. He made a lot of what he displayed—a wooden Santa and sleigh, snowmen. Every year he added a bit more.

In the backyard, which is what people saw first as they entered the neighborhood, stood the Nativity scene. Large, colorful, lighted figures. My father-in-law made a wooden stable to shelter Joseph, Mary, and the Baby. He covered the roof with straw and rigged a star to stand over it.

One year, when my children were small, vandals climbed the backyard fence on Christmas Eve. They knocked the Nativity figures down, coated them with black spray paint, and stole the Baby Jesus. He was nowhere to be found when my distraught in-laws discovered the desecration on Christmas morning.

My father-in-law painstakingly removed all of the spray paint—I can see him in my mind, bending to his task, working gently to avoid doing further damage, until the figures were clean.

My mother-in-law, however, was afraid to display the scene again:

“Whoever did this came over the fence, awfully close to the house. I don’t want to invite them back.”

She asked her son, my pastor husband, if he wanted the Nativity. After all, he and I lived in the country, in a parsonage right beside our church. Seemed a fitting home for a Nativity scene—albeit one without a Baby Jesus.

So we took it.

And put it up in the parsonage yard the next Christmas.

Our youngest son, a preschooler, was fascinated by the scene. He’d put on his coat and go out into the yard to stare at it for as long as we’d let him.

One day, he asked: “Why doesn’t Baby Jesus light up?”

We’d supplied a little wooden manger and a doll in swaddling cloths (i.e., a tightly-wrapped blanket). We simply told our boy that someone had taken the Jesus that lit up; we didn’t know who had done it or why, so we had to use this one.

He accepted that. Furthermore, his fascination rested on Joseph anyway. For a year or two, he referred to the entire Nativity scene as “The Joseph.”

He loved it so much that once people at church heard about it, they began giving him all kinds of small Nativity scenes. He put every one of them up in his room. I told my husband: “It’s beginning to look like a Palestinian South of the Border in there.”

Our boy became interested in the Wise Men next. He identified them by their clothing: the Blue Wise Man, the Green Wise Man, and the Pink Wise Man. He learned that they carried gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of those, myrrh captured his imagination most. I think it was the sound of it.

A few times I caught him out in the yard with a blanket around him, kneeling at the manger.

When I asked what he was doing, he replied, solemnly, “I’m the fourth Wise Man.”

I crept away to a respectable distance, marveling at his devotion.

Wondering.

Many Christmases have come and gone. My in-laws are no longer here. “Ma-Ma” died at the end of November last year.

But my son, age twenty-one and a music minister now, still sets out that very same Nativity on the day after Thanksgiving. When the wind gusts enough to blow the figures down, he’s soon outside, standing them back up. The wooden stable fell apart long ago, but “Pa-Pa’s” star remains.

Oh, and we now have a Baby Jesus that lights up.

See, when our makeshift, non-lighted manger and doll got too weathered to use after a few seasons, our elementary-age son improvised with a stuffed dog that our real dogs had played with. It was dirty and torn. He placed right on the ground in front of Joseph and Mary.

I shuddered, thinking, Is it disrespectful to have such a thing depicting Jesus?

Then I realized . . . isn’t it actually more symbolic? To have a Jesus that’s torn, battered, and stained?

I used this as an analogy in a Sunday School lesson.

That Christmas Eve, church members who had a Nativity scene just like ours came in the night to leave their Baby Jesus in the back of my husband’s truck. On it was a note to our little son, wishing him a Merry Christmas.

And that is what Christmas is all about, is it not.

Redemption.

Pa-Pa removing the paint. The people sacrificially replacing what was taken long ago.

Restoring what seems to be hopelessly beyond repair.

My son pauses by the window. The old Nativity is still standing there in our yard, lighting up this dark Christmas Eve night, as I write. My son goes up the stairs to his room, where he’ll work on his music for a while longer.

And I hear the strains of song, faintly:

With the dawn of redeeming grace . . . .

The star

The first Christmas that we were married, my husband and I bought a star tree topper at a drugstore.

That was over thirty years ago.

The star was silver then.

Eventually I sprayed it gold so it would better match ornaments on the tree.

Every year I have to reinforce it with hot glue and duct tape. And every year I say it’s time for this old star to go.

But it still shines.

And I can’t find another tree topper I like better.

It’s older than our children. It’s presided over Christmas for their entire lives.

It’s outlasted the gingerbread ornament that my youngest made in preschool. The sweet ornament crumbled after a decade or so—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, gingerbread to cinnamon and cloves. Spice of life, formless and void, fragrant fragments in my hand when just the Christmas before, it was whole.

The star shone on when other lights went out, one by one. Lights in my life, not those of man-made strings on the tree. This star glowed above me as I decorated, year after passing year, listening to a particularly poignant version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring that pierced my soul. The haunting chords stirred an almost unbearable sense of loss. Of time, of people, of the inevitability of it all. For a moment, though, under that star, somewhere in the music, in the light, in the season, those who loved me were near again. Not visible, not tangible, yet present, perceptible. Very near.

It stands within its own circle, this star. I think of all that might symbolize. The circle of life. May the circle be unbroken. A wedding band, a halo, a covenant. Wholeness, holiness.

It is fragile.

It is old.

But the star hangs on. It still shines.

With Christmas grace.

September 11

Healing field

The Healing Field. Randy HeinitzCC BY

Out of the blue

a student asks:

“Mrs. Haley,

if you could have

one magic power,

what would it be?”

Other students 

look up from their writing

to listen. 

I think of suffering

of strife

of festering

scars and stripes

visible

and invisible.

Broken bodies

hearts

psyches.

The children watch

and wait.

What power would it be?

“Healing,” I say.

They absorb this

without a word

their young eyes

looking far away

or maybe far within

to make

their own meaning.

They nod

as they return

to creating

their own stories.

A fine mess

After being away on vacation all last week, my first order of business on returning home was to check on the four baby house finches that hatched in the wreath on my front door. I’d been chronicling their development daily, so I knew many changes would occur in my absence.

Here is what I discovered:

1) The babies are now well-feathered; their skin-head mohawks have become mere wisps upon their downy crowns.

2) Two of the babies can fly. They sailed out of the nest this morning as I approached. The other two stayed put, their bright little eyes regarding me with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

3) Their nest is one spectacular conglomeration of droppings.

To be fair, the droppings are only around the rim; the mother collects them there. What a job, building a wall of excrement. Worse than diapers. When I first wrote of the perfect, flower-graced nest, the pale blue eggs, the hatching of the tiny pink nestlings, I concentrated on the beauty and wonder of life. I pointed out that the collective noun for a group of finches is a charm.

And charmed I was.

There is nothing charming about that nest now.

The fledglings themselves, of course, are enchanting. They’ll soon be gone, the circle of life will go on, and all that will remain of these magical moments is a monumental mess.

But that’s the story of life. It’s messy. It can’t be comprised solely of breathtaking beauty and newness; if it were, we could not recognize these moments for what they are. They’d lose their value. Only when contrasted with ugliness, hardships, and pain can we see and cherish the beautiful when it comes. We inevitably deal with messes, some that occur naturally, some created by others, some of our own making. Therein lie all the stories . . .

Which makes me think of writing. This nest is a tangible (although I do not wish to touch it) reminder of these commonalities:

-Life is messy.

-Writing is messy.

-Thinking is messy.

-Teaching is messy.

To do any of these well, we have to be willing to accept and even embrace the messiness. We must certainly persevere through it to arrive at the beautiful. It takes courage, stamina, and a lot of hard work, to write well, to think well, to teach well, to live well.

The strength to do so, I believe, lies in believing that the beautiful will come. It’s all a matter of trust, of faith. And pressing on.

Although I was appalled by the quantity of accumulated—um, bird-doo—around the nest, I was also amazed that two of my four little finches could fly. Last night they couldn’t; today they can. Tomorrow the others might.

This is a message to me about readiness.

Everyone arrives as a writer, a thinker, a teacher, a good practitioner of life, in their own time. Lots of messes will be made along the way. Sorting this out is what grows us. One by one, as children, as adults, as long as we live, we are continually growing the necessary wings to fly beyond where we are. And it’s truly a collective, collaborative growth; we are to nudge each other when needed, but not too hard, too soon. We’re not to hold back, to hold one another back, simply because we cannot see all that lies ahead and for fear of navigating the unknown. Knowledge comes by trying. By experiencing. By taking risks. There’s an implicit difference between throwing caution to the wind and taking a leap of faith, that being potential self-destruction versus healthy maturation. These finches know. As the day wears on, I watch the two fledglings that can fly going back and forth from the eaves to the nest, coaching their other two siblings on how to do it. See see see, I hear them cheeping. A bit at a time, a bit at a time. At any moment, those last two are going to get up on that nasty, messy rim and let go.

In more ways than one . . . .

So you make a mess. So what? So you’re alive and growing.

Tomorrow you stretch your newest feathers and find you can move on.

To where the beautiful awaits.